For this weeks Eastern Premise Jason Julier turns to more modern fare than offered by the last couple of weeks, with a look towards China and Zia Zhanke’s The World.
Such a huge ambitious title could summarise almost anything and for China’s Zia Zhangke this project marked his first above ground feature. Previously despite international recognition his films had avoided the influence of the state censor. With such censorship rules relaxed and money being invested in Chinese films, Zhangke was ideally placed to take advantage with his next project.
The World isn’t a fantastic film, despite being released on the excellent Masters of Cinema label; it’s far from his best work. I remain a fan of 24 City, which I covered in an earlier instalment of Eastern Premise, which blends the documentary format to capture the essence of an aging Communist giant into a global consumer superpower. Many of the same themes permeate The World, with a changing population still enduring a harsh work ethic and living standards. Forced to remain in the poverty trap they can only dream of new cultures and experiences. This is where the World Park comes into its own by offering a capsule of landmarks and cultures within one location. Think of it as the muted Chinese version of Vegas or Disney’s global snapshots; for those who don’t wish to leave the comfort of their own country.
In The World, the visitors have no ability to travel. Lacking a visa or passport they can only aspire to experience new cultures beyond China. Clearly it’s not a problem endemic to China, as the inclusion of Russian workers provides an interesting comparison. They are faced by the same financial limitations and for one worker the pursuit of money leads her away from the relative safety of the World Park. Despite the lack of a common language Tao and Anna form an unlikely friendship. Somehow against all odds they find common ground and converse, their bond forms a brief moment within a sizeable running time yet it remains a highlight.
Theme parks are a wonderful setting for films; normally in the twilight of their existence and the most eerie of backdrops. In The World we spend more time backstage with the performers as they dress into their international costumes and work their way across locations. Lavish stage shows are commonplace but we are spared these routines in favour of the rudimentary chores and struggles of the workers. Zhangke may have missed a trick here as I found the World Park to be a captivating environment with its one third scale depictions and the Chinese take on the West. This potentially interesting and diverse environment is an instrument rather than the main attraction.
Instead we mainly follow two workers within the park; Tao played by Zhao Tao is Zhangke’s regular leading lady. The relationship with her boyfriend is the core of the film and their internal struggles offer us the chance to see other areas of this world. The importance of family and supporting your circle is a constant pressure. Lust rears its ugly head as Tao’s boyfriend (Taisheng), becomes infatuated with another woman. Qun has her own concerns despite a successful career making fake Western goods, she longs for her husband who many years previously, spent everything in an effort to make his fortune in the West. Qun stayed at home and utilised the legal channels to obtain her own Visa to travel beyond China. This is modern China, the central characters are perceived by their family to have well-paid jobs and in comparison to the rural areas lead a more prosperous lifestyle. Financial struggles are never too far away. The park workers may offer a few hours of freedom to their visitors yet they remain stuck in this fake world; an alien blot on a Chinese landscape.
With state backing The World wasn’t really going to deal with the real issues of China and the restrictions it places on freedom. While the park workers can only dream of ‘freedom’, Zhangke never tackles what real freedom actually represents and its true cost. This picturesque tale of love and working hardship skirts around this contentious political issue what could have been. Freedom to travel is admittedly limited by wealth otherwise we’d all be constantly shooting across the globe, but that’s only a partial consideration. Qun’s tale and the risks taken by her husband are not dwelt upon, as she becomes the trigger for the conclusion of the film itself. The real question is why many are unable to travel or leave the confines of China, to express themselves and experience new cultures and ideas.
The botched premise of The World is disappointing, yet it remains a visual treat; full of flair and imagination. The miniaturised sights of the globe standout against a modern landscape, which is growing all around the park, as a new China prospers. The Eiffel Tower is a centrepiece; devoid of the queues that blight the original feature and as one park worker exclaims; ‘we still have the Twin Towers’. Zhangke’s eye for a setting continues to prosper, that’s the only consolation I can take from The World, which marks his acceptance by the establishment.
The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray arrives with a wonderfully colourful booklet that offers an insight into the director and The World itself. A detailed introduction from Tony Rayns sheds the spotlight on both aspects and deviates at times to highlight other areas of interest. An hour long ‘making of’ documentary goes behind the scenes and an interview with Zhangke rounds off a decent selection of extras. The World is an interesting piece of Chinese cinema, limited by its ambition and overly long running time. It is flawed, despite the international acclaim I find it personally difficult to recommend. (Editors Note; I disagree with Jason completely, and recommend the film very highly – Adam)